It’s exactly a year until fans across the world can stop salivating and start being satiated by the month-long festival of the World Cup. But in just a few days’ time some of the contenders to lift the trophy next year will get an early taster of what a Brazilian World Cup has to offer when the Confederations Cup gets underway. Although used as an opportunity for organizers to make their preparations and for many of the eight teams present to gain some potentially useful experience, the action on the field will not be without significance.
The hosts, in particular, have plenty to work to do as they look to go one better than their still painful final defeat in their only previous time hosting the World Cup back in 1950. Elsewhere, Spain, Italy, Mexico, Uruguay, Japan, Nigeria and Tahiti all have their own reasons to make the most of the two-week event. Here’s a look at how things might unravel when the tournament gets underway on Saturday.
Group A (Brazil, Japan, Mexico and Italy)
On paper, this is certainly the tougher of the two groups with each side sure to believe that they can finish in the top two and qualify for the semifinals. Most of the attention, of course, will be on Brazil. Having not had to qualify for the World Cup, this tournament is as close as the Selecao will have to competitive action before embarking on their quest to reclaim the trophy they have won more times than any other nation. And there is plenty of uncertainty still surrounding Brazil. Luiz Felipe Scolari’s return as coach at the beginning of the year has failed to yet yield a desired upturn in performances. The man that led the country to its last World Cup triumph in 2002 is still striving to find the right blend of players from a pool that is currently in between the generation of Ronaldinho and Kaka and that of Neymar and Oscar.
That new generation failed to shine and attracted much criticism for not going home with an Olympic gold from London last year when Brazil was beaten in the final by Mexico. That triumph, added to other recent successes for their underage teams, saw credible talk of a golden generation for El Tri. But, as yet, that is not bearing itself out on the pitch. Mexico have labored in World Cup qualifying, recording one win, five draws and scoring just three goals in their opening six matches in the Concacaf Hexagonal. Coach Juan Manuel de la Torre has struggled to find attacking cohesion and could well have been sacked following a goalless draw at home to Costa Rica on Tuesday had Mexico not been flying out to Brazil that night. An early return home from South America and he may not be so lucky.
Brazil and Mexico face plenty of tough competition in Group A, with Italy, in particular, likely to be confident of demonstrating their credentials to go far next year. Cesare Prandelli’s side impressed hugely at Euro 2012 both in results, as they finished runners-up, and by finally destroying the, in some ways, tired stereotype of destructive Italian sides with a style of play that was positive and pleasing on the eye. With a squad featuring the talents of Mario Balotelli, Andrea Pirlo and a tough back line, the Azzurri should go far.
And an emerging Japan side is capable of upsetting the more traditional powers. The Samurai Blue were the first side to qualify for next year’s World Cup and should impress many observers with their possession-based style and collection of technically gifted players, led by Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa and CSKA Moscow’s Keisuke Honda.
Prediction: Group A is incredibly tough to call. Despite their talent, it is hard to envisage Mexico’s problems being solved in this tournament and they look set for a quick exit. A strong Italy squad should do enough to progress, though it would not be a huge surprise, although it would be a national embarrassment, were Brazil not to make it through. Ultimately, though, the Selecao are likely to just progress at Japan’s expense.
Group B (Spain, Uruguay, Tahiti and Nigeria)
Despite grueling seasons, almost all of Spain’s leading stars will be making the trip to Brazil. The core of the side that won an unprecedented three tournaments in a row remains, but there are some doubts about whether they will still be the team to beat next year. Vicente del Bosque is still searching for the right striker to spearhead the side and, with some of the team’s legends -- like Xavi -- beginning to reach the twilight of their careers, some fresh blood may need to be introduced.
The same could be said about Spain’s first opponents, Uruguay. Two years ago when Oscar Washington Tabarez’s side followed up their semifinal place at the last World Cup by winning the Copa America, many would have fancied them as better than an outside bet to go all the way in 2014. But things have not gone right since then. A squad that has gotten old together has toiled in qualifying and is still in jeopardy of not qualifying for the World Cup. A 1-0 win at rivals Venezuela this week, though, sees them arrive in Brazil in better spirits.
Nigeria faces a tough task to challenge Spain and Uruguay for a semifinal place. Stephen Keshi restored pride in a team that had been ailing for a far too long as he led Nigeria to triumph in the African Nations Cup, but the former defender has taken an inexperienced side to Brazil. Nine of the squad that took the trophy in January miss out, with their two biggest threats going forward, Emmanuel Emenike and Victor Moses, missing out.
As for the remaining side in Group B, Tahiti, even they will surely struggle to see the Confederations Cup as anything more than a glorious and rare experience on the world stage. The pacific island was the shock winners of the OFC Nations Cup last year after New Zealand were knocked out in the semifinals. With just one player in their squad who plays outside of their home country -- Nancy forward Marama Vahirua -- Tahiti’s amateurs will now get their chance to rub shoulders with some of the world’s elite players.
Prediction: It is difficult to see past Spain and Uruguay progressing. Tahiti will be hoping just to keep their, surely three, defeats respectable. Despite missing many of their big names, Nigeria could spring a surprise with Keshi having shown his ability to get the most from local talent like Sunday Mba. Spain will expect to cruise through and Uruguay should have enough to beat Nigeria for second.
Sports reporter, mainly focusing on my native sport of soccer, but also dabbling in some tennis and Formula One.